Throughout Washington State and the U.S., children from historically marginalized groups are overrepresented in the child welfare system. Every year, thousands of children enter Washington’s foster care system, often because society has judged their families and communities quickly, unfairly, and on the color of their skin. These children have been separated from everything they’ve ever known and need loving guardians to support them.
So as foster parents, how best to support foster children in your care? How can you provide them with a safe, loving, and inclusive environment that will allow them to flourish? Learning more about the impact systemic racism has on families of color is one vital step you can take.
Systemic Racism's Impact On Foster Care Removals
Systemic racism has led to over-policing, poverty, unwarranted scrutiny, and forced removal of children from their families. Such practices have a detrimental effect on the most vulnerable within the community: the children. Compared to society at large, children of color make up a disproportionate share of youth in the child welfare system.
One cause lies in the implicit biases that many within the system have — from those who report concerns to child protective services to the police officers, social workers, and court officials who then determine the child’s fate. They may believe they have the child’s best interests at heart, but studies have revealed that subconscious prejudice plays an outsized role in their decision-making process.
Yet implicit bias in the child welfare system isn’t the sole cause. Structural racism in past and present social and economic policies that guide child welfare, immigration, criminal justice, housing, and employment all are intertwined. Together they create the conditions that lead to the overrepresentation of children of color in the child welfare system.
For example, Elisa Minhoff, a senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, explains that, from its earliest days, the child welfare system often removed children from families merely because they were poor. Even today, “High poverty rates mean these families are less likely to have access to necessary resources such as stable housing, counseling, and childcare services, without which they may be determined to be neglectful by the child welfare system.” And children of color are more likely to be living in poverty — in 2019, 9% of whites compared to 21.2% of Blacks and 24.2% of Indigenous people were considered to be living in poverty. This can ultimately lead to a higher rate of removal and then placement into the foster care system.
In examining the history of Indigenous assimilation programs, which removed children from families, you can find another example of structural racism in child welfare policies. Minhoff cites studies from 1969 and 1974 that found that 25–35% of Indigenous children were being separated from their families and either found themselves in the foster care system or in adoptive homes.
In the present day, one out of every nine Black children has had at least one incarcerated parent. Black children are also five times more likely than white children to be separated from their parents due to incarceration.
The above factors ultimately mean children of color are removed from their homes and separated from their families at higher rates than white children. They stay in the welfare system longer and, therefore, are more likely to spend time in foster care.
Indeed, the recent statistics in Washington State demonstrate the inequities present in our state:
- In Washington State, Black children have been nearly twice as likely as white children to end up in foster care after an initial case is opened.
- Indigenous children have been around 3x as likely as white children to end up in foster care.
- Black children account for 16% of the children in the foster care system, but Black people represent less than 7% of the state’s population.
A Shift In The Status Quo?
While calls for an increased focus on equality and equity have been growing more urgent over the years, 2020–2021 has placed social justice issues front and center. As a result, there has been more urgency and enthusiasm for enacting policies that address social inequities. And more people than ever before acknowledge that we must eliminate structural racism to reach our goals of familial well-being and equality.
The Family First Prevention Services Act was passed in 2018, which among other things seeks to keep families together through more prevention services and build community capacity to support children and families. States have up to three years to develop a plan, but Washington State was one of the earliest to do so, receiving approval in October 2020.
In Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee’s Equity Agenda lays out several policy proposals intended “to address systemic racism [and] eliminate racial disparities.” Among them are proposals for direct assistance in the form of grants, mentorship, education, and career development programs for youth who have been in the foster care system or have experienced homelessness.
Similarly, the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families has released a draft of its Strategic and Racial Equity plan that acknowledges the role of racism in child welfare history and policies, and it outlines how it will address racial disparities, increase prevention strategies, and expand services and support for children and families of color in the welfare system.
These are significant leadership moves that have the potential to also drive additional policy initiatives. Nevertheless, addressing systemic racism requires a commitment to follow through on action at all levels — from the government down to the individual. Everyone must do their part.
How Your Actions Can Change The Status Quo —
And Help Your Foster Child
The most critical step foster parents can take is to be open to listening. Don’t wait for Black History Month to come around each year. Instead, seek out opportunities to talk to community members and your foster child about race. And learn from them.
As Marcos Huante, the visitation and respite coordinator at Skookum Kids and a foster parent himself for 11 years notes, “I think one of the most important things to remember is that you are not going to have all the answers — and that is okay. This might even create an opportunity for you (and a foster child) to search for the answers together.”
Staying humble and curious will encourage an open dialogue about race, its role in society, and its impact on your foster child’s life. It will also help you revisit what you think, assume, and believe, which will, in turn, improve how you guide and support foster children of color. The questions raised in this insightful article from Wreckage and Wonder is a great place to start.
Some additional actions to take include:
- Recognize that children whose cultural background is different than that of their foster family will face an additional loss when separated from their biological families. Training yourself on trauma-informed care practices may be helpful.
- Practice active listening so that your child feels safe and seen as a person of color.
- Create a racially validating environment for your child.
- Understand white privilege.
Knowing more about the history of racism in foster care will help you feel more prepared and comfortable when you talk about these topics with your foster child while supporting the ultimate goal of reunification with a child’s birth family. Completing the foster care journey takes acknowledgment, a commitment to ongoing listening and learning, and perseverance.
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